Inside Pope Francis’ Address to Congress

Pope Francis, the first pope to address a joint meeting of the United States Congress, called for dialogue, compassion and shared social responsibility.


“We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”


At a time when the atrocities committed by the Islamic State are being blamed on the religion of Islam, and politicians are saying that Muslims should be disqualified from being president, the pope is saying that such extremism can infect any faith. Most religion scholars would agree: It is not just Islam; Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism all have been co-opted by extremists who violate crimes in the name of their faith.


“It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.”


This a reference to the current conflicts over “religious freedom” in the United States. He does not make it explicit: He does not mention the county clerk who refused to sign gay marriage licenses or the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are suing over the contraception mandate. But he is using the same language that the United States bishops have been using to make the case that religious freedom is more than the freedom to worship in church or synagogue or mosque, and that any infringement on religion in the public sphere is a violation of the right to religious freedom.


“In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.”


Francis is clearly reminding his audience that the United States is part of a larger whole — one America in the Americas, where immigration is a deeply rooted part of history. He offers guidance on how to respond to the world's latest migrant crisis, urging lawmakers to treat migrants “with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated."


“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”


Francis talks of the “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage” but then instead of continuing on to talk about the need to end abortion, he pivots to the death penalty.


“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”


Francis' blunt critique of the excesses of capitalism have brought him some criticism in the United States. Earlier in year, he famously compared the excesses of capitalism as "dung" of the devil. He was much more understated in Congress but he didn't shy away from raising the issue. He praised business as “a noble vocation” and hailed the progress already made to end poverty. But he also noted that the fight against poverty “must be fought constantly.”


“In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies ...”


Francis explicitly cites "human activity" — a line directed toward skeptics who question the established science that human activity contributes to climate change. He calls for investments in technology and research institutions to offer solutions, an idea in keeping with that of some moderate Republicans, who have acknowledged the reality of human-caused climate change.


“When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”


This seems to be a reference to the recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, which Francis helped broker. It's a compliment for President Obama more than Congress, which may not be appreciated by Republican lawmakers.